Albany, NY, April 22, 2010

Mr. Perkins, you must be a very dangerous and powerful man. Yesterday the tabloids were filled with editorials and articles denouncing you for holding hearings about charter schools; today, there are even more.

If charters are public schools and receive public money, why should they object to oversight hearings by a legally constituted body of the New York State Senate?

I am a historian of education, so allow me to provide a brief overview of the origin of charter schools.

Charter schools were first envisioned in 1988 by two men who didn’t know one another. Albert Shanker, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, had the idea, as did Professor Ray Budde of the University of Massachusetts. Both of them thought that public school teachers could get permission from local authorities to open a small experimental school and then focus on the neediest students. The school would recruit students who had dropped out and who were likely to drop out. It would seek new ways to motivate the most challenging students and bring whatever lessons they learned back to public schools, to make them better able to educate these youngsters.

The original vision of charter schools was that they would help strengthen public schools, not compete with them.

By 1993, Shanker turned against his own idea. He concluded that charter schools had turned into a form of privatization that was not materially different from vouchers. From then until his death in 1996, he lumped vouchers and charters together as a threat to public education and a distraction from real school reform.

Today, there are 5,000 charter schools with 1.5 million students. This is 3% of the nation’s public school enrollment of 50 million. In New York City, charters enroll 30,000 students, or about 3% of the city’s enrollment of 1.1 million.

Charters vary widely in quality. Last year a national evaluation by Margaret Raymond of Stanford University (including data from 2,403 charters and 70 percent of all charter students) found that only 17% outperformed regular public schools; that 46% had learning gains no different from regular public schools; and that 37% had gains that were worse than regular public schools. Raymond concluded, “This study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their TPS [traditional public school] counterparts. Further, tremendous variation in academic quality among charters is the norm, not the exception. The problem of quality is the most pressing issue that charter schools face.” She went on to say that “If this study shows anything, it shows that we’ve got a two-to-one margin of bad charters to good charters.”

When Raymond studied New York City charters last year, she found a better record, but it was still a mixed record. She compared charters to regular public schools and concluded that 51% of charters got significant gains in math, while only 29% outperformed regular public schools in reading.

Conversely, 49% of New York City’s charter schools did not outperform regular public schools in math, and 71% produced no significant gains in reading. She also reported that students who were either special education or English language learners made no significant gains in New York City charter schools, nor did students who had previously been held back a grade.

She did not point out in her study that New York City’s charters have a smaller proportion of students in special education and students with limited English proficiency than the neighborhood public schools.

New York City has 50,000 homeless students, but only about 100 are enrolled in a charter school. If a proportionate number were in charters, there would be 1,500, not 100. In East New York, where there are nine homeless shelters, there is a successful charter that enrolls not a single homeless student.

We have to abandon the naïve belief that charters are a panacea for education; they are not. Since 2003, charter schools have been compared to regular public schools by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, the federal testing program. In 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009, NAEP found no significant difference between students in charter schools and students in regular public schools. No significant difference for black students, Hispanic students, low-income students, or students in urban districts. Like Margaret Raymond’s study, NAEP shows that charters, in the aggregate, do not outperform regular public schools.

Some charters are as idealistic as the original vision, but many others now see themselves as competition for public schools. They want to take over public school space and replace public schools. They revel in stories about beating public schools, not helping them.

As the number of charters grows, public authorities must ensure that charter operators are responsible. We have seen stories in the press, especially the New York Daily News, about charters that produce astonishing profits for entrepreneurs and investors, while storing children in trailers with meager facilities. This is not right. Just last month, on March 9, the New York Times described how public schools in Harlem now must market themselves to compete with charter schools for new students. The regular public schools have less than $500 each to create brochures and fliers; the charter firm with which they compete has a marketing budget of $325,000. That’s not fair. We have seen stories about non-profit entrepreneurs who are paid $400,000 a year or more to run charters for 1,000 children. That’s more than the Chancellor of the New York City schools is paid, and more than the U.S. Secretary of Education. That’s not right. The New York Daily News reports today that charter schools, unlike other public schools, are not subject to public audits or to rules prohibiting nepotism and conflicts of interest by their board members or staff. That’s not right.

The Legislature must insist that charters act like public institutions and that they are fiscally transparent and accountable.

Charters now enroll 3% of our students. Who champions the other 97%? I hope the day comes when charters return to the original vision of what they started out to be, when they were expected to help address the education of the neediest children.

I hope the day comes when charters join with public schools as partners, collaborators, and allies in the shared mission of educating all of our city’s public school students.